Of Google and geckos' feet

Over the last 30 months, almost from the start of the Technology Strategy Board as a separate organisation, two questions have kept being asked of us - and probably of others. The first, cast usually in a rather downbeat way, is "Will the UK ever produce a company like Google?" The perception is that somehow, the environment in the UK is such that no-one will ever have the ambition and the opportunity to grow a company that far and that fast. The second question, which is usually asked by those we know in Government, is "How can we make growing companies keep their operations in the UK?" If you juxtapose these questions in the same conversation, you quickly realise that they are related, and that the real question would be something like "How can we make the environment in the UK such that it encourages the growth of companies here?"

This is not an easy question to answer, but then neither were the originals. However, it was Douglas Adams who answered the question "Do you have an answer?" with "No, but I have a different way to look at the question"

It can be cast as a cultural question. There is a legend that there was a biotechnology business war game held in the last few years between the UK and the US. It was one of those competitions where real people work in teams using a basic economic model that takes their decisions and simulates how it works at a vastly increased timescale. The US businesses all decided that they would go for global leadership and made big, hairy plays. The US venture capitalists supported those goals and made connections to extra talent where appropriate and took a measured equity stake to ensure the executives were all highly motivated to deliver their ambitious goals. The UK businesses all aimed at a trade sale with 5 years, the UK venture capitalists replaced the management teams and took crippling equity stakes - required a payback within 5 years - nicely complementing the strategy of the executives. The results were predictable - the US businesses went on to buy the UK businesses as European footholds on their way to global domination. It was only a game.

Let's look at the Google question first. After all, the statistics are fairly impressive. Begun as a research project only 13 years ago, Google started trading in 1998 from the obligatory garage in Menlo Park. It now has around 20,000 employees, revenues well over $100bn from advertising and is regularly voted the "best place to work". It, and several other large companies, have come from the US over the last decade as a variety of new technologies enable new products, services and even business models. So is it true that we have never produced large companies? The answer to that is patently "no". For much of the 20th century we competed globally with a number of companies in the pharmaceutical, electronics, aerospace and automotive sectors. Even today, we have our fair share of software companies in the business and leisure markets - possibly more than our fair share in the gaming area. We haven't had one for a while, but we have contenders even if they don't come along that often. How would we know if we had a contender and what would we need to do to support its success?

For the second question, we need to look at how to keep these growing companies in the UK. This is most ardently expressed by our Science Minister, Lord Drayson, with his constant probing about "stickiness". We are in a global competition with other countries to host these growing companies and sometimes we lose. What, he asks, can we do to make the UK more attractive for such companies? We often lose companies to other countries who offer specific cash support for building new factories, tax breaks for senior executives, or guaranteed government contracts.

Perhaps it was training in my younger days by Synectics, but I always look for a metaphor when the original question seems too difficult to answer. The use of the word "stickiness" gives us a clue, because adhesion is a complex subject and I have seen a fair amount of progress over the last 25 years in terms of its understanding. In the old days, there were competing theories of adhesion from the mechanical, through those based in physical chemistry, to those with almost a quantum mechanical basis. Surprising aspects of adhesion were the stuff of erudite papers and even popular science articles in magazines like Scientific American. Perhaps my favourite has been the growing understanding of geckos' feet. The gecko is, at first glance, an unremarkable lizard-like animal - until you see one walk up smooth vertical surfaces or even cling to the ceiling. They seem to have perfected the stickiness required for their world - and without the apparent use of external agents. The truth, once discovered, was widely touted as the precursor to new forms of dry adhesive, but.....

The end of each toe is covered with very fine hairs called setae. They are usually about 5 nanometres in diameter (and therefore much finer than human hair, which runs between 20 to 150 nanometres) and their ends are covered in between 100 and 1000 spatulae (flattened ends). It is then down to well known van der Waals forces to hold these large surfaces areas together. What this structure achieves is an enormous surface area on every gecko's feet and an adhesive force strong enough to hold about 8 times the weight of a gecko with one foot. Geckos do not work by applying a small drop of very strong adhesive, they work by using a very large amount of very weak adhesive forces all acting in concert!

Taking the principle of geckos' feet back into the government and commercial world, what would we do differently? The world of a growing company is complex, and there are many aspects of its activities in which it requires help. The UK, like many other countries, provides the full range of support mechanisms - we have a very strong science base from which to extract ideas and people; the Technology Strategy Board itself is becoming an important mechanism to help companies develop more innovative products and services; there are sources of information to help companies navigate the complex world of regulation and fiscal measures - the list is very long.

The problem, as it is often played back to us, is that these measure are all uncorrelated. Different parts of government provide different services but do not work together to make the support package consistent and complementary. Perhaps the answer to both the questions is to make the various UK support mechanisms work better together. And maybe - just maybe - if they do, we can produce companies that can walk across ceilings as they go on to global market domination.

 

Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:09

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  • Tony Smee|11/05/12 at 4:43 PM

    Just got directed to this interesting blog from January 2010. Looks like the problems were known then and here we are in 2012 with the same problems.

    Adrian Hudson|28/01/10 at 6:00 PM

    Whilst Google is undoubtedly good for the UK jobs, it is not so good that it diverts UK advertising income through Ireland to take advantage of a more favourably Corporation tax rate. £1.6 billion turnover last year equated to no contribution to the UK tax coffers.

    Would the UK really like to produce a company like Google?"

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